Coerced confession?

Are certain people especially vulnerable to being pressured to confess to a crime they did not commit?

Last year a Pennsylvania Superior Court panel said a jury should be allowed to hear the opinion of a psychological expert on this question raised in a Philadelphia homicide case.

On Tuesday the state Supreme Court put that ruling on hold, agreeing to consider an appeal filed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office contending the Superior Court judges “mischaracterized and misapplied” Supreme Court precedent.

The ruling means that Jose Alicea, now 26, will remain in custody without bail awaiting trial for murder in the Oct. 30, 2005 shooting of 21-year-old Esroy George Rowe during a melee at their neighborhood café in Olney.

Alicea, then 19, with no prior arrest record and an IQ of 64 – six points below the traditional threshold for mental retardation – was brought in for questioning at 2 a.m., Nov. 1, 2005, according to court documents. Five hours later, nervous and shaking, Alicea began a statement to detectives implicating himself.

Beyond his confession, say court records, the evidence against him was equivocal: eyewitnesses who identified two other people as the shooter.

In pretrial hearings before Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner, Alicea’s lawyers argued that they should be allowed to call as a witness Richard Leo, a nationally known expert on police interrogation and false confessions. Lerner said yes, ruling that Leo’s expert testimony would not interfere with a jury’s ability to assess the credibility of Alicea’s claim of a coerced confession.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office appealed to the Superior Court and last year got the split-opinion from the three-judge panel affirming Lerner’s ruling.

“Even those jurors who are aware of police interrogation techniques, or believe that they are aware by watching media and television,” wrote Superior Court Judge Mary Jane Bowes in the majority opinion, “are unlikely to understand how these methods can lead to an innocent individual confessing."

Superior Court Judge Correale F. Stevens dissented, writing that the state Supreme Court had long restricted the use of expert witnesses to those instances where “formation of an opinion on a subject requires knowledge, information or skill beyond that possessed by the ordinary juror.”

Now the Supreme Court will decide if the Superior Court judges got it right or wrong.

Hugh Burns, chief of the appeals unit in the District Attorney’s office, said he expects the high court to issue a briefing schedule on the case soon and decide in several months whether it will hear oral argument.

Defense attorney Lawrence S. Krasner could not be reached for comment.

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